Federal authorities plan to open up almost 4,000 square nautical miles of ocean near the Vineyard for potential wind power generation.
A draft Request for Interest (RFI) map presented to a renewable energy task force meeting of state, local and federal representatives on Wednesday identifies a vast arc of ocean, extending from the Rhode Island border, southwest of the Island, across to the south of the Vineyard and Nantucket, then running north and east to the entrance to Nantucket Sound.
The map, prepared by the Minerals Management Service comprises 448 blocks totaling 3,895 square nautical miles, for which wind power developers could bid. The boundaries of the area — which encroach about eight or nine miles from shore at their closest and extend out 22 to 50 miles — closely follow the contours of the underwater geography, between 30 and 60 meters (about 100 and 200 feet).
By comparison, the Cape Wind project is planned to cover 24 square miles of ocean in the middle of Nantucket Sound; the area covered by the draft RFI is 160 times larger.
It includes almost all the federal waters off the Massachusetts coast which are accessible under current or near-future wind turbine technology. The shoals south and east of Nantucket would appear to be the most immediately prospective, since they are the shallowest in the RFI zone, and also are thought to have the most suitable seabed conditions — mostly outwash sand.
But given rapid advances in offshore wind technology, Wednesday’s meeting was told, the whole area could be accessible within five to seven years.
In addition, areas within the buffer zone, extending from the three-mile outer limit of state-controlled waters out to nine miles could be opened to municipal or so-called innovative energy generation proposals.
They would be considered on a case-by-case basis and have vastly smaller impacts. The real action would be nine miles or more from shore.
Would-be wind farm developers would be required to bid on areas of at least 14 blocks — an effort to prevent speculative land grabbing. That stipulation also would ensure large development parcels of more than 90 square miles each, probably necessary to give the economies of scale necessary to ensure projects were viable, given the greater costs of development so far offshore.
The MMS plans for offshore wind are developing fast. Held at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzard’s Bay, Wednesday’s meeting was the second of the task force, set up last November. Island representatives on the task force received their copies of the draft RFI and the accompanying map only a couple of days before the meeting.
The Gazette attended the meeting, but the MMS would not provide copies of the material to the press on the basis that they were working documents, for internal deliberation only.
The 40-odd task force members present — including representatives of several Island towns, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the Wampanoag tribe and Dukes County Commission — were given a presentation on the draft RFI and map, and invited to ask questions or express opinions.
Task force members then were given only until Feb. 5 to make submissions.
Jessica Bradley, the Massachusetts Project Coordinator for the MMS office of Offshore Alternative Energy Programs, later said no date had yet been set for a response to any submissions.
Steven Textoris, the acting program manager of OAEP, also assured task force members the map was just “a first cut, a first shot” at delineating a wind power zone, and that it would be refined down.
He said there would be “ample opportunity” for comment at subsequent stages of the process — after the call for nominations, and again after any responses were received. And that is before an environmental impact assessment, which typically takes 18 to 24 months and also provides for comment.
The tone of questions from the task force participants indicated displeasure that the MMS and the state, which helped draft the map, had not done more refining of their own.
The only parameter considered for the draft was water depth. What about other considerations?
The response was that those were matters to be addressed later, that it was not feasible to consider them in advance for such a huge area of which individual projects might cover only a small part.
That answer did not satisfy some. Brona Simon, the Massachusetts State Historic Preservation Officer, said the MMS should have been more proactive in identifying possible concerns.
She reminded the room that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had recently stated that he wanted good wind projects built in the right places.
“You don’t know what the right places are in that map,” she said.
Ms. Simon and representatives of Indian interests, including Bettina Washington, historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag tribe on the Vineyard, cautioned that native American cultural concerns should be taken into account at the start of the process.
Suggestions that other issues such as bird and whale migration routes, fishing grounds and navigation should have been taken into account were met with the same answer: that it would happen later in the process after the threshold issue of establishing commercial interest.
The central question of all wind power proposals, that of views, was addressed, however.
Deerin Babb-Brott, assistant secretary of the state Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the buffer zone had been set at nine miles after consideration of developments in Europe. Nine miles would mean turbines were still visible, but less obvious particularly in conditions of haze and fog. He said preference would be given to projects further from shore.
Island representatives wanted the buffer zone increased. Chilmark selectman J.B. Riggs Parker was the most precise about what he wanted.
“I thought we were here to redraw these areas if possible,” he said, and went on to describe viewsheds as the “third rail” for wind developments.
“There’s plenty of area, if you take it out to 24 miles, you will not have a third rail to touch. You will not have community resistance,” he said.
Then there was the question of what benefits might flow from development. Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel asked who would determine where the power cables ran to, and where the resultant jobs might be generated. He was told that was entirely a matter for the developers.
West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel wanted to know how and where state infrastructure existed to handle the power coming ashore. Mr. Babb-Brott said a report on the state’s power infrastructure was being finished and would be available in about a month.
Mr. Israel also wanted to know what share of royalty payments might come to state and local government. He was told that once a project was more than six miles from shore, there was no obligation for the federal government to pass on any money. However, because cabling from the development would have to go through state waters, some mitigation money would flow.
The energy bureaucrats, state and federal, stressed repeatedly that the fact that the map covered such a large area did not necessarily mean it all would be developed.
“It’s in no way being presented as this is what’s being developed. It’s just a potential area,” Ms. Bradley said.
But there are concerns among those close to the process that the state and federal energy authorities are moving too fast to get large-scale wind projcts up.
Mark Forrest, chief of staff to Cong. William Delahunt, a persistent critic of Cape Wind and other wind developments in this area, pointed to the New England Governors’ Renewable Energy Blueprint of last September, as an indication of the size and urgency of the plans afoot.
That report identified areas in the Northeast, including areas adjacent to the Islands, as being capable of generating up to 12,000 megawatts of wind electricity — 4,500 of it offshore — within 20 years.
So far, the only offshore project in train is Cape Wind, which would generate less than one tenth of that. Cape Wind has been mired in controversy for some eight years.
“The federal and state government are interested in identifying a multitude of sites, and looking at a significant level of development,” Mr. Forrest said.
“We have been very concerned at the apparent desire on the part of the Minerals Management Service to get out ahead of the White House on the whole matter of marine spatial planning.
“There’s a whole framework that’s been developed by the White House that should be guiding the process, serving as a road map of where best to be doing offshore renewable energy.
“By every indication we have received, it appears the MMS is ignoring the White House and the Council on Environmental Quality. They’re not using anything that’s being developed there to guide their work. They’re basically working on parallel tracks, which from our point of view has set off some significant alarm bells.”
By MIKE SECCOMBE